Stoic Week 2020

Stoic Week 2020

Stoic Week is an annual event run by the Modern Stoicism team that invites you to ‘live like a Stoic for a week’. It’s a free, seven-day course that has had over 20,000 participants since its inception in 2012.

Having never taken part before, I decided 2020 was the year to give it a go. I was interested to understand if the weeks I’ve been living prior to this one have been Stoic or not.

What follows is a summary of how the week went. Although I’ll share my questionnaire results from before and after, plus short summaries of each day, I decided early against sharing all my journaling and self-monitoring notes lest they become influenced by the knowledge they’ll be published.

Preparation

Before the week is officially proclaimed Stoic, a few preparatory actions were required. 

Participants had to fill out a questionnaire to set a baseline that could then be referred back to at the end of the week. The six questionnaire categories were:

  • Satisfaction with Life Scale
    Possible scores range from 5 (least satisfaction with life) to 35 (most satisfied with life)
    • My score: 22
    • Average score at the start of a previous Stoic Week: 22.3
    • Scoring scale: 21 – 25 = Slightly satisfied
  • Scale of Positive and Negative Experience (SPANE)
    Score represents the balance of positive over negative feelings.
    • My score: 4
    • Average score at the start of a previous Stoic Week: 3.7
    • Scoring scale: The score can vary from -24 (least positive feelings possible) to 24 (most positive).
  • Flourishing Scale
    A high score represents a person with many psychological resources and strengths.
    • My score: 42
    • Average score at the start of a previous Stoic Week: 41
    • Scoring scale: A score between 37 and 43 places you in bottom 11-33% of respondents.
  • Three Stoic Disciplines Scale
    This  scale was devised by Massimo Pigliucci and Greg Lopez for their book A Handbook for New Stoics
    • My score: 74
    • Scoring scale: The minimum score (least Stoic) is 9 and the highest score (most Stoic) is 90.
  • Stoic Attitudes and Beliefs Scales (SABS v5.0)
    The higher the score (between 60 and 420), the more Stoic your attitudes and beliefs are.
    • My score: 337
    • Average score at the start of a previous Stoic Week: 300
  • The Ten Item Personality Scale

We were also given access to:

  • Audio recordings
  • The Stoic Week handbook 
  • A Self-Monitoring Record

This Year’s Theme

Is gladly apt:

Stoicism during a Pandemic: Care for Ourselves, Others, and Our World

Format

The daily schedule instructions consisted of four tasks:

  • Reflect on the day’s provided Stoic passage
  • Complete the morning Stoic meditation
    • Soon after you wake, take some time to rehearse the day ahead
    • Pick a Stoic principle of virtue and consider ways it may need to be applied today
    • Imagine your day not going as planned and how the application of Stoic virtues could help you overcome specific difficulties
  • Complete the evening Stoic meditation
    • Before going to sleep at night, take 5 minutes to review the events of your day. Ask yourself the following (or similar) questions: 
    • 1. What did you do badly? Did you allow yourself to be ruled by fears or desires of an excessive or irrational kind? Did you act badly or allow yourself to indulge irrational thoughts? 
    • 2. What did you do well? Did you make progress by strengthening your grasp of the virtues? Praise yourself and reinforce what you want to repeat.
    • 3. What could you do differently? Did you omit any opportunities to exercise virtue or strength of character? How could you have handled things better?
  • At lunchtime, complete the day’s Stoic exercise
  • Optional: Complete the Self-Monitoring Record
    • Observing your thoughts closely throughout the day, use the record to note behaviours you’d like to stop. Examples are dwelling on negative thoughts or actions you may later regret.

On to the week…

Monday

Morning Text for Reflection

If virtue promises to enable us to achieve happiness, freedom from passion, and serenity, then progress towards virtue is surely also progress towards each of these states … if, when someone gets up in the morning … he bathes as a trustworthy person, and eats as a self-respecting person, putting his guiding principles into action in relation to anything he has to deal with, just as a runner does in practising running … this then is the person who is truly making progress; this is the one who hasn’t travelled in vain.

Epictetus, Discourses 1.4. 4, 20-1

Instruction

Think about how each virtue can be relevant at the current time. 

  • Wisdom – using good reasoning and judgement and deciding which virtue to apply
  • Courage – doing what is right even if it is difficult
  • Justice and kindness – excellence in your relationship with others
  • Moderation and self-control – ability to deal well with desires and emotions

Midday Exercise

Take a few minutes this lunch-time to think of a few ways in which you could make progress towards caring better for yourself, others, or your world. Note down some first steps, things that you could do during this week or the next. Think of one or two larger moves in this direction – broader aims in life that you may have lost sight of in the daily demands on your time and attention. It may be helpful, like Epictetus in the morning text for reflection, to think of your life as a journey that you can shape and make significant, and to remember that small actions can become useful steps towards realizing your in-built capacity to live a rich human life.

Evening Text for Reflection 

Marcus Aurelius thinks about the qualities of his friend, Sextus, which helped Marcus to make progress in learning how to care for himself and others. 

From Sextus [I learnt] kindliness … the idea of living according to nature; seriousness without affectation; perceptiveness in gauging his friends’ needs … the ability to fit in with everyone, so that his company was more pleasant than any kind of flattery, while at the same time he aroused the greatest respect from those who were with him; a secure and methodical discovery and organization of the principles necessary for life; never to give the impression of anger or any other passion but to be at once completely free of passion and yet full of affection for other people; to speak well of others without making a fuss about it, and deep learning without ostentation.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 1.9

Monday Summary

Today’s exercise was to think of a few ways in which I could make progress towards caring better for myself, others, or my world. The instruction encouraged thinking of some simple first steps to achieve this progress, followed by some broader aims. I came up with the following:

Myself

  • First steps: Continue with regular Stoic reflections like this after Stoic Week ends.
  • Larger move: Learn more. Whether it be skills, languages, philosophies, expand my comfort zone by learning things that were previously unfamiliar.

Others

  • First steps: Before the end of the week, call three friends I haven’t spoken to recently.
  • Larger move: Try to be more proactive in helping people. For example, rather than saying, “Let me know if you need anything”, just do something.

Tuesday

Morning Text for Reflection

The wise person does nothing that he could regret, nothing against his will, but does everything honourably, consistently, seriously, and rightly; he anticipates nothing as if it is bound to happen, but is shocked by nothing when it does happen…. and refers everything to his own judgement, and stands by his own decisions. I can conceive of nothing which is happier that this.

Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 5.81

Midday Exercise

Do you think the Stoic idea of happiness can be particularly helpful during the time of a pandemic?
Can thinking about your happiness in terms of how you conduct yourself as a human being help?
Imagine that the pandemic is over – what core values would you want to have lived by?
Imagine that you are telling the story of what you did in the great pandemic of 2020 to your grandchildren, perhaps many years from now. What would you want to say about what you did?
What do you think about the Stoic idea of happiness as a framework for holding your core values together and giving them coherence? Can you see how their pattern of thinking links up with yours? Is there anything you see as missing in the Stoic view – or something new but helpful in the Stoic idea? These are quite big questions so it does not matter if you do not have a ready answer. The main thing is to raise the questions and to see how far the week as a whole provides answers.

Evening Text for Reflection

Will there come a day, my soul, when you are good and simple and unified […] some day will you have a taste of a loving and affectionate disposition? Some day will you be satisfied and want for nothing […] Or will you be contented instead with your present circumstances and delighted with everything around you and convince yourself that all you have comes from the gods, and that all that is pleasing for them is well for you? Will there come a day when you are so much a member of the community of gods and humans as neither to bring any complaint against them nor to incur their indignation?

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 10.1

Tuesday Summary

There were a lot of questions posed by today’s exercise, mostly centered around the Stoic idea of happiness.

The Stoics offered an idea of happiness that gives a central role to our own agency, our ability to determine our own actions. They also insisted that we can all work towards achieving happiness whatever our situation in life.

The happy life combines the proper use of rationality with sociability (wanting to benefit other people).

The questions posed in the exercise all point to a common answer – that happiness derived from within is less susceptible to disruption than happiness that relies on external factors.

In other words, if we focus on what we can control we are much more likely to feel fulfilled and happy when we achieve what we set out to. For example, helping others, setting a good example, being reliable and honest – these are all things compatible with the Stoic idea of happiness.

Just that you do the right thing, the rest doesn’t matter.

Marcus Aurelius

Wednesday

Morning Text for Reflection

If you can find anything in human life better than justice, truthfulness, self-control, courage […] turn to it with all your heart and enjoy the supreme good that you have found […] but if you find all other things to be trivial and valueless in comparison with virtue, give no room to anything else, since, once you turn towards that and divert from your proper path, you will no longer be able without inner conflict to give the highest honour to what is properly good. It is not right to set up as a rival to the rational and social good anything alien to its nature, such as the praise of the many, or positions of power, wealth, or enjoyment of pleasures.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 3.6

Midday Exercise

Draw up a list of what you think the most important qualities are for living a good human life. How far does your list match the Stoic set of four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, and moderation or self-control. Remember these are just general types with subdivisions. What do you find missing in the Stoic list – or in your list? Does the Stoic list help you to think of virtues you would like to develop more fully in yourself?

Evening Text for Reflection

From what did we gain an understanding of virtue? From someone’s orderly character, his sense of what is appropriate and consistency, the harmony between all his actions, and his greatness of spirit in coping with everything. In this way, we came to understand the happy life, that flows on smoothly and is completely under its own control.

Seneca, Letters, 120.11

Wednesday Summary

Today’s exercise made me return to a list of 13 personal guidelines for life I compiled previously. Most of these were formed with Stoic principles in mind and this was a good reminder to keep reviewing them regularly:

Thursday

Morning Text for Reflection

It is important to understand that nature creates in parents affection for their children; and parental affection is the source from which we trace the shared community of the human race … As it is obvious that it is natural to us to shrink from pain, so it is clear that we derive from nature itself the motive to love those to whom we have given birth. From this motive is developed the mutual concern which unites human beings as such. The fact of their common humanity means that one person should feel another to be his relative.

Cicero, On Ends, 3.62-3.

Midday Exercise

Hierocles suggested we should think of ourselves as living in a series of concentric circles, and that we should try to ‘draw the circles somehow toward the centre’. He explained that, ‘The right point will be reached if, through our own initiative, we reduce the distance of the relationship with each person.’ He also suggests using verbal techniques such as calling one’s cousins ‘brother’ and one’s uncles and aunts ‘father’ or ‘mother’.

Here is a visualisation or meditation technique loosely based on Hierocles’
comments:

  1. Close your eyes and take a few moments to relax and focus your attention on the things you’re about to visualise.
  2. Picture a circle of light surrounding your body and take a few moments to imagine that it symbolises a growing sense of affection toward your own true nature as a rational animal, capable of wisdom (virtue), the chief good in life.
  3. Now imagine that circle is expanding to encompass members of your family or others who are very close to you, towards whom you now project an attitude of family affection as if they were somehow parts of your own body.
  4. Imagine that circle expanding to encompass people you encounter in daily life, perhaps colleagues you work alongside, and project natural affection toward them as if they were members of your own family.
  5. Let the circle expand further to include everyone in the country where you live, imagining that your affection is spreading out toward them also, insofar as they are rational animals akin to you.
  6. Imagine the circle now growing to envelop the entire world and the whole human race as one, allowing this philosophical and philanthropic affection to encompass every other member of the human race.

Evening Text for Reflection

Let us embrace in our minds the fact that there are two communities – the one which is great and truly common, including gods and human beings, in which we look neither to this corner or to that, but measure the boundaries of our state by the sun; the other, the one to which we have been assigned by the accident of our birth.

Seneca, On Leisure

What benefits each of us is what is in line with our constitution and nature; my nature is rational and political. As Antoninus, my city and fatherland is Rome, as a human being it is the universe. It is only what benefits these cities which is good for me.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.44.5-6

Thursday Summary

Today’s midday meditation exercise was one I think most people would benefit from doing regularly. It’s easy to get caught up in your own world and, as a result, have less regard for how others are doing.

Visualing each circle expanding made me first think of family and friends I need to reconnect with, then of people I haven’t met yet whom I need to be considerate of.

Overall, today’s reading and exercise reminded me to pay attention, to be aware of people who need help, whether I know them or not. As Seneca said, wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness.

Friday

Morning Text for Reflection

It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgements that they form about them. Death, for instance, is nothing terrible, or else it would have seemed so to Socrates too; no, it is in the judgement that death is terrible that the terror lies. Accordingly, whenever we are impeded, disturbed or distressed, we should never blame anyone else but only ourselves, that is, our judgements. It is an act of a poorly educated person to blame others when things are going badly for him; one who has taken the first step towards being properly educated blames himself, while one who is fully educated blames neither anyone else nor himself.

Epictetus, Handbook, 5

Midday Exercise

Here are two suggestions to think about today.

Call to mind a recent occasion when you reacted in a way that you can now see as misguided. Perhaps you got very irritated or angry when someone was insulting you or was treating you in a casual or thoughtless way. At the time or just afterwards, you may have thought, ‘I’m justified at getting angry at being treated like this’. Reflect on the value-judgements built into this reaction. In effect, you were thinking that your happiness (what really matters in life) depends on being giving status or importance by other people and annoyed when this did not happen. Remind yourself that happiness does not depend on other people’s valuation of your status but on what you do for yourself to develop the virtues and put these into practice. When the same person insults you again, bring this belief to mind and see if it helps you to avoid having the same outburst of anger or irritation.

Call to mind this time a recent occasion when you reacted with what you can now recognise as a ‘good emotion’, in Stoic terms. Perhaps you felt very positively about doing something worthwhile; or you felt strongly disinclined to do something wrong or distasteful; or you felt a real enthusiasm and pleasure at a fine act done by someone you consider to have genuinely good character. These are the kind of reactions Stoics would describe as the good emotions of ‘wishing’, being ‘cautious’, or experiencing ‘joy’. Reflect here too on the value-judgements built into your reaction, above all, the recognition that happiness depends on what we can do for ourselves to develop and act on the virtues. On the next occasion, you may feel this kind of emotion more readily because of building up the pattern of beliefs on which these emotions depend.

Evening Text for Reflection

So reflect on this: the result of wisdom is stability of joy. The wise person’s mind is like the superlunary heaven: always peaceful. So you have this reason to want to be wise, if wisdom is always accompanied by joy. This joy has only one source: an awareness of the virtues. A person is not capable of joy unless he is brave, unless he is just, unless he has self-control.

Seneca, Letters, 59.16

Friday Summary

Call to mind a recent occasion when you reacted in a way that you can now see as misguided.

This week I allowed myself to become annoyed at work. Several times, while trying to focus on a task, I was interrupted by multiple instant messages asking me questions. For some reason, these types of questions, from different people, always seem to arrive at the same time.

Although I didn’t show it in my responses, I got annoyed at my colleagues for distracting me. Thinking about it rationally after, I was able to see they just needed help – they didn’t know they were posing their question at the same time as someone else.

Accepting this, and being thankful that I didn’t project my annoyance onto them, I was able to get back to my task. Going forward I may consider using a “do not disturb” status on my instant messenger at times when I really need to concentrate on a piece of work.

Call to mind this time a recent occasion when you reacted with what you can now recognise as a ‘good emotion’, in Stoic terms.

From the same situation as above, the restraint shown in not projecting annoyance onto others was positive. As Marcus Aurelius wrote:
“‘All men are made one for another: either then teach them better or bear with them.”

Saturday

Morning Text for Reflection

Be like the headland, on which the waves break constantly, which still stands firm, while the foaming waters are put to rest around it. ‘It is my bad luck that this has happened to me.’ On the contrary, say, ‘It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without getting upset, neither crushed by the present nor afraid of the future.’ This kind of event could have happened to anyone, but not everyone would have borne it without getting upset.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.49

Midday Exercise

By repeatedly picturing future catastrophes – at least what are generally regarded as catastrophes — Stoics aimed to reduce anxiety about them, just as exposure therapy in CBT today aims to reduce the anxiety attached to specific situations.

To begin with, you should not do this with anything that might lead you to bite off more than you can chew. Don’t imagine things that are deeply personal or traumatic until you’re definitely ready to do so without feeling overwhelmed. Begin by working on small things that upset you. Don’t let yourself worry about them; just try to picture the worst case scenario patiently, and wait for your emotions to abate naturally. Remind yourself of the Stoic principles you’ve learned, in particular, the maxim that people are upset not by external events but by their own judgements about them, particularly value judgements that place too much importance on things that are not under their direct control.

Try to spend at least 20-30 minutes doing this each day. (If you cannot spare this much time then it’s essential that you pick a much milder topic to work on – one which generates a level of emotion low enough to naturally abate within fewer minutes.)

Evening Text for Reflection

Glad and cheerful, let us say, as we go to our rest: ‘I have finished living; I have run the course that fortune set for me’. If God gives us another day, let us receive it with joy. The happiest person, who owns himself more fully, is the one who waits for the next day without anxiety. Anyone who can say, ‘I have had my life’ rises with a bonus, receiving one more day.

Seneca, Letters, 12.9

Saturday Summary

Today’s exercise suggested it would be helpful to answer the following questions in relation to picturing future adversity:

  1. Situation.
    What is the upsetting situation that you’re imagining?
    Speaking in front of a group in work meetings (when in-person meetings are possible again).
  2. Emotions.
    How does it make you feel when you picture it as if it’s happening right now? How strong is the feeling (0-100%)?
    Anxious and stressed, elevated heart rate. The strength of the feeling is about 65% as it’s difficult to recreate, but 100% when it’s really happening.
  3. Duration.
    How long (in minutes) did you manage to sit with it and patiently expose yourself to the event in your imagination?
    Twenty minutes. I used the Deep Relaxation exercise from the StressControl.org site which is intended to prepare for such situations. By practicing this type of relaxation regularly it is hoped that it can be called upon in times of stress.
  4. Consequence.
    How strong was the upsetting feeling at the end (0-100%)? What else did you feel or experience by the end?
    At the end the feeling had gone and I felt much more relaxed.
  5. Analysis.
    Has your perspective changed on the upsetting event? Is it really as awful as you imagined? How could you potentially cope if it did happen? What’s under your control in this situation and what isn’t?
    While the relaxation exercise helped a lot, it’s unclear whether it would work when feelings of stress come on involuntarily. My hope is that with enough practice, it will. The you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war…

Sunday

Morning Text for Reflection

The works of the gods are full of providence, and the works of fortune are not separate from nature or the interweaving and intertwining of the things governed by providence. Everything flows from there. Further factors are necessity and the benefit of the whole universe, of which you are a part. What is brought by the nature of the whole and what maintains that nature is good for each part of nature. Just as the changes in the elements maintain the universe so too do the changes in the compounds.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.3

Midday Exercise

The ‘View from Above’ is a guided visualisation that is aimed at instilling a sense of the ‘bigger picture’, and of understanding your role within nature as a whole. You can practise a visualisation of the ‘View from Above’ by downloading the audio recording provided.

You can also read a transcript of a View from Above during the pandemic and an associated video presentation:

Evening Text for Reflection

I travel along nature’s way until I fall down and take my rest, breathing out my last into the air, from which I draw my daily breath, and falling down to that earth from which my father drew his seed, my mother her blood and my nurse her milk, and from which for so many years I have taken my daily food and drink, the earth which carries my footsteps and which I have used to the full in so many ways.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.4

Sunday Summary

The View from Above exercise was the perfect way to end Stoic Week. Guided by the relaxing voice of Donald Robertson in the provided audio download, the sense of serenity and perspective was strong at the end of the meditation.

It’s possible to really get a sense of our place in the world by carrying out this exercise. It shows us we are important and unimportant at the same time and that both those facts should reassure us. I feel that doing the View from Above exercise once a month would be ideal to maintain it’s effect.

End Of Week Questionnaire

While I expected my questionnaire scores to go up a litte, I honestly didn’t expect such a big jump. I think this is a good endorsement for maintaining a regular practice.

Here are the end-of-week results, with start-of-week results included for comparison:

  • Satisfaction with Life Scale
    Possible scores range from 5 (least satisfaction with life) to 35 (most satisfied with life)
    • My score: 28 (start of week: 22)
    • Average score at the start of a previous Stoic Week: 22.3
    • Scoring scale: 21 – 25 = Slightly satisfied
    • Scoring scale: 26 – 30 = Satisfied
  • Scale of Positive and Negative Experience (SPANE)
    Score represents the balance of positive over negative feelings.
    • My score: 12 (start of week: 4)
    • Average score at the start of a previous Stoic Week: 3.7
    • Scoring scale: The score can vary from -24 (least positive feelings possible) to 24 (most positive).
  • Flourishing Scale
    A high score represents a person with many psychological resources and strengths.
    • My score: 52 (start of week: 42)
    • Average score at the start of a previous Stoic Week: 41
    • Scoring scale: A score between 37 and 43 places you in bottom 11-33% of respondents.
    • Scoring scale: A score between 48 and 52 places you in the top 61-90% of respondents.
  • Three Stoic Disciplines Scale
    This  scale was devised by Massimo Pigliucci and Greg Lopez for their book A Handbook for New Stoics
    • My score: 84 (start of week: 74)
    • Scoring scale: The minimum score (least Stoic) is 9 and the highest score (most Stoic) is 90.
  • Stoic Attitudes and Beliefs Scales (SABS v5.0)
    The higher the score (between 60 and 420), the more Stoic your attitudes and beliefs are.
    • My score: 383 (start of week: 337)
    • Average score at the start of a previous Stoic Week: 300
    • Scoring scale: 320 or above would place you in the top 30%
    • Scoring scale: 383 or above would place you in the top 10%
  • The Ten Item Personality Scale

Stoic Week Summary

As I was already very familiar with Stoicism before trying Stoic Week, my intention was to kick-start some good habits and use it to revisit Stoic concepts that I hadn’t studied recently.

The content definitely lived up to the theme of “Stoicism during a Pandemic: Care for Ourselves, Others, and Our World” and made me mindful to focus on people and things besides myself during this period.

Through the week I reached out to friends and family I hadn’t spoken to in weeks, and if I had gained nothing else from Stoic Week then those interactions would still have made it a success.

As it turned out there were other benefits. I enjoyed studying the short Stoic passages every morning and evening, and the exercises did a good job of implementing the lessons they were trying to teach in a practical way. The “Circles of Hierocles” and “View from Above” visualisations were particularly powerful.

Going forward, I intend to integrate the exercises into a regular practice as I think revisiting them would be a great way to preserve their impact – I think continuing to do them every day would be too much though!

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